Bolivia: Government, Opposition Clash in Cooking Oil War

(IPS) – The latest clash between the Bolivian government and conservative opposition forces is over a temporary government ban on exports of cooking oil, in response to domestic price hikes.

In the last few months, the local markets have suffered shortages of flour, rice, beef and other staple foods produced in Bolivia’s more affluent eastern region, accompanied by a rise in prices that the government attributes to a campaign aimed at generating discontent.

In response, the leftwing administration of Evo Morales decreed a suspension of exports of cooking oil on Mar. 19.

Minister of Rural Development and Agriculture Susana Rivero said "we cannot allow the price of cooking oil in Bolivia to be the most expensive in the world." She said a ton of soybeans in Bolivia is selling for 1,690 dollars, compared to 1,290 dollars a ton on the market in Chicago, Illinois.

The price of cooking oil doubled over the last month, from 1.20 to 2.40 dollars a litre — unaffordable to many in a country where 65 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Government officials pointed out that cooking oil is being exported to neighbouring countries at a lower price than what it is selling for on the local market.

Rivero said the aim of the ban on exports was to guarantee domestic supplies and "re-establish fair prices."

In response, an emergency assembly of business, agribusiness and transportation owners in the province of Santa Cruz declared Tuesday that they would continue exporting regardless of the measure.

The province of Santa Cruz is rich in agribusiness and natural gas, exporting products worth 1.28 billion dollars, out of a national total of 4.78 billion dollars, in 2007, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE).

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority who make up Morales’ key support base, and the relatively wealthy eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product.

Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of more European (primarily Spanish) descent.

The highest-profile representative of the powerful export agribusiness interests in the eastern part of the country is the president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, businessman Branko Marinkovic.

The call by agribusiness interests in Santa Cruz for the provincial government to pass a local statute that would overrule President Morales’ decree against cooking oil exports is interpreted "as reflecting an interest in destabilising the government," lawmaker José Pimentel of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party told IPS.

The powerful conservative business interests in Santa Cruz called for the government ban to be removed, arguing that food security in Bolivia was under threat, as well as 300,000 jobs that depend on exports of agricultural products.

In December, the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando declared "autonomy" from the central government.

The call by Tuesday’s business assembly for the Santa Cruz government of conservative Governor Rubén Costas to disregard the Morales administration’s ban on cooking oil exports was justified as part of the declaration of autonomy.

The business interests have also refused to engage in talks with Morales unless he removes the ban.

The call for ignoring the decree essentially denies the authority of the democratically elected Morales administration.

The business assembly also threatened to hold nationwide roadblocks with the participation of 25,000 truck drivers who transport merchandise within the country and abroad.

Bolivia put an end to price and supply controls in 1985, when the market was thrown open.

The December autonomy statutes were adopted by Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando six days after the draft of the new constitution was approved by the pro-government majority in the constituent assembly, in a session that was boycotted by the rightwing opposition. The statutes will go to referendum on May 4.

However, the results of the referendum will not be legally binding as it is not supported by the National Electoral Court or the national government.

According to Pimentel, the strategy followed by the Santa Cruz agribusiness interests is a bad idea because the big market for cooking oil is the western highlands and the main foreign buyer is Venezuela, whose government, led by Hugo Chávez, is an ally of the Morales administration.

Behind the protests and demands, said the ruling party legislator, lies "a scheme that began with the criticism (and boycott) of the constituent assembly and now is identified with the vested interests of those who do not want to recognise Evo Morales as Bolivia’s legitimate president."

Isaac Ávalos, executive secretary of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, which represents the country’s small farmers, backed the government and suggested that Morales nationalise the cooking oil industry.

But the president of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Mauricio Roca, said "the government does not care about the economy. It only wants to impose its totalitarian regime by force, killing the productive sector."

Guillermo Mendoza, a legislator for the centre-left opposition Front for National Unity, told IPS that although he did not agree with the ban on cooking oil exports, he believes the statutes without legal backing that have been adopted by the government’s adversaries are leading to a situation of "complete illegality."

Mendoza warned that the adoption by regional and sectorial assemblies of autonomy statutes and decisions to disregard government decrees will undermine the government’s authority, which he described as "the beginning of the end."